The Dream Syndicate brought the sound of the 60s East Village to LA in the early 80s. Steve Wynn, a Paisley Underground idol of mine took time between gigs to chat about the scenes, his recent re-master of The Dream Syndicate’s sophomore album Medicine Show and what’s changed since 1984.
There seemed to be a bit of backlash from some fans and critics with the initial release of Medicine Show, accusations of “selling out” and all that. What was your response to the shift in sound from your first album The Days of Wine and Roses to Medicine Show?
You know, we evolved we changed, we heard new things, experienced new things and all that fed onto the record. I think it’s a natural thing and it’s almost phony if you do the same thing over and over again, it’s kind of a willful refusal to take on all the things that happen all around you. But you know over here people loved The Days of Wine and Roses so much but then when it came to the (Medicine Show) it was different at the time, there was a perception about being on a major label that meant almost nothing but at the time to some it was a betrayal. It was so funny, we read things that people would read into the record that had nothing to with the record itself but in the meantime it came out in Europe to an audience who hadn’t really heard The Days of Wine and Roses and they flipped out and it started a really long career for me and I think looking back 25 years later it holds up pretty well.
I think that’s evident in hearing how Medicine Show opener “Still Holding On To You” evokes a similar guitar cool like on “Tell Me When It’s Over” that opens your first album.
Right, whenever you make your first record or your first couple of records you can hear your record collection, you can hear some of your influences and then eventually you find your own voice which I really think we did between the first and second records. When I listen to The Days of Wine and Roses,a record I am very proud of, I can hear all the elements that go into it, I can hear the Velvets, I can hear the Fall, I can hear the Creedence, the Bob Dylan, all the things we were compared to that were pretty well justified. When I hear Medicine Show I hear…us, what we were doing and a lot of the very aggressive, fragile and freakish emotional states that we were in at the time. It’s a very honest record, a gritty rough rollercoaster ride of a record and that’s why I’ve always liked it.
Do you ever tire of discussing the mobius strip of Velvets references and inquiries brought up by every press person you’ve talked to over the past three decades?
Naw, I mean not now. At the time I did! At the time of when The Days of Wine and Roses came out where everything was so about the Velvet Underground and looking back now I couldn’t say this at the time, but that was the highest compliment because the Velvets still were very much a cult band and the people who loved them, music lovers and critics, loved them the same way we do but they weren’t the big cultural touchstone that they are now. So what it meant to people around us in our circle when someone said that it was like, “You’re carrying the flag of something that means a lot to me.” At the time I got defensive, I was like, “Stop talking about the Velvets already!” But now it’s like naw, we’re playing a festival in Massachusetts with my other band the Baseball Project and were listening to my new solo album with the Miracle 3 and one of the guys in the car goes, ‘is this your new Velvet Underground record?” And I’m like, oh man, they all are! And I can joke about that now, it’s something I like, it’s something I sound like but so are a lot of things.
Nothing against the V.U, but I have always loved the Dream Syndicate for providing an attitude and style that I could never get from Bruce Springsteen or 70s era Dion. Could you tell me a bit more about the early days of being on Slash records?
Well it was a huge honor and at that time that was the coolest label we could be on and especially being in LA, being on a label with the Blasters and I was a huge fan of the Gun Club so to be actually on Ruby Records, the subsidiary of Slash that signed us was great because the album Fire of Love was the record I played to death at that time. You know I think my first year with the Dream Syndicate was an experience that you don’t get to have many times for a long time in your life, no matter who you are, where we were the coolest band around. Even if you stay cool or evolve or whatever, you’ll never have that experience again to be a new, cool band and that’s a real rush where everyone’s tripping over themselves to say that they discovered you. And I see it happen with every new band that comes around, it’s proud to say, hey, that’s the band I’m into. It’s great you know, we got to be that band for a year, we got to be on Slash, we got written up by people like Richard Meltzer and people like that, it was a real thrill and being on Slash was part of that experience.
How were you influenced by the state of music in LA at a time when hair metal was ruling the circuits?
Well, when we started playing there was not much around in general and definitely not in LA that we were a part of. We were new to the scene, we were younger we liked to play our guitars like 60s music, garage music, feedback and distortion. The reason we existed was because we weren’t hearing the music we wanted to listen to because the music we loved like wasn’t being made. A few people came close, the Fall, the Gun Club, the Fleshtones…
The only bands doing the stuff we liked were the bands in our scene, the Paisley Underground scene at the time. So there was a feeling kinda like, well, it made us a bit defiant and snotty and all the things that we were at the time we really felt that people were going to hate us in a way, even though we liked us, but man we were playing 20 minutes songs, feedback, no one is going to like us but people actually did!
It was like you guys set out to make “Sister Ray” the Odyssey, but not to be reductionist because I feel that you provide something more by way of fine tuning your sound that becomes consummate by the time you get to Medicine Show.
Yeah, and it gets deeper and darker throughout the record, I mean side two, “The Medicine Show,” “John Coltrane Stereo Blues,” “Merritville,” throwing yourself headfirst into the emotional muck. I think The Days of Wine and Roses is disturbing in a lot of ways and in that way it’s more sonically disturbing but I think with the Medicine Show we made it mostly disturbing as well! We always wanted a record that wouldn’t be background music. Think about what was happening at the time, like you were saying with hair metal, or Michael Jackson, the New Romantic scene in England, synthesizers and the Human League and we didn’t want to be part of any of that! We didn’t want to suck up to that one percent, we wanted to be our own universe and Medicine Show took it forever and making the record that way we did is the same reason I’m making music today, nothing predictable, not taking the easy route.
Could you elaborate on the task of re-mastering Medicine Show?
Well, yeah, the fact of that matter is that CDs have sounded terrible for the longest time and even up to five years ago they sounded flat and shrill and just a few years ago they just started making them sound somewhat like an approximation of the vinyl experience. We’ve seen it with the re-mastering of the Beatles catalogue, Exile on Main Street this year; suddenly you’re like oh, this is just as good as having the vinyl copy. And still making records for as long as I have I still don’t know why or what caused the change but maybe the converters have gotten better at making CDs sound good, giving it that warm full bodied sound that the original record had.
Could you discuss more of your formal ties with the Gun Club?
You know, being on the same label, the same producer and hung out with them a little bit; surprisingly little actually. The first time I met Jeffrey Lee Pierce we were in M